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True/False Film Fest 2020: The Value of the Theatrical Experience (Coronavirus Remix)

How to Disappear

“You guys are going to spend the next year stuck quarantined with buskers,” a friend wrote on my way to True/False, which seemed to be sliding just under the wire of possibility even before I got there–a foreboding confirmed by day two, when SXSW became the first film festival to cancel. Onscreen, every handshake and hug was charged with an unintended jolt; in the theaters, elbow bumps were exchanged, nervous jokes made and telltale pools of soapy foam collected at the bottom of bathroom sinks. On its last day, True/False added one of SXSW’s now-homeless premieres, a special by (noted landlords’ rights advocate) Hannibal Buress, to the lineup. Drawn by the unexpected light of stand-up comedy, a line of hundreds filled the Ragtag Cinema’s lobby and spilled outside in a concentration I’d never seen in 11 years of attendance. In retrospect, it seemed like a dare rather than a fun bonus, let alone (as an excited email announcing the addition phrased it) “some True/False magic right here, folks!” As we learn new ways to fear our own and others’ bodies, the value of watching films in a theater is, for the indefinite future, no longer a theoretical argument about the value of the big screen and a communal viewing experience, or a technical discussion about what digital projection does that home setups still can’t. The practical value of the “theatrical experience” is, at this point, simply when we’ll be able to have it again.

But some of True/False 2020’s best selections did offer new answers for the value of big-screen communal viewing, ones we’ll hopefully be able to explore further later on. Credited to the “Digital Disarmament Collective” (Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, Michael Stumpf), the 23-minute How to Disappear is a Farocki-inflected exercise in cracking unintended semiotic codes. A dispassionate narrator explains that in Battlefield V there is no desertion—any player who tries to leave the field of combat is shot, game over. That’s a fair point, aside from the fact no one who wants to play Battlefield V would ever be motivated to Refuse To Participate—the implicit prerequisite is enthusiastic first-person POV violence. That obvious asterisk noted, How to Disappear amusingly spins its analytical wheels, connecting game-mode inability to resist with the real-world normalization of assumptions about combat and its inevitability.

More to the point, How to Disappear is a widescreen, extremely high-resolution exploration of a stunningly rendered landscape whose uncanny valley is disrupted by the odd potentially glitchy digital artifact. Finding ways to, if not escape gameplay entirely, carve out moments for observation and attendant analysis, is a challenge. Phil Solomon’s “In Memoriam” cycle luxuriated in the gloomy, softer textures of Grand Theft Auto, taking advantage of gameplay that gave players agency to bore themselves silly if they wanted to stay off-task. With another 10+ years of technological advances, we’re on a whole new textural plane, with less time to choose to simply explore it. The gameplay does some things that aren’t intended—zooming right into another soldier’s face, peering into the gums and teeth beneath the skin, or hovering underwater, upside-down, staring up through a convincingly rendered pond’s surface. Figuring out how to look around, and seeing the big-screen results of this exercise, hit harder than it would have on the usual monitor of game-playing choice.

How to Disappear preceded one of seven world premieres at this year’s fest, Ina Luchsperger’s Catskin, a medium-length bummer of a rural German family portrait. Father and son are both getting into crypto-Nazi politics: dad rants about how yes of course he deplores the swastika but is it really okay (from a civil liberties/free speech perspective, rest assured) to ban symbols, while his offspring tells Luchsperger how “88” stands for “Heil Hitler.” There is a certain amount of value, or at least grueling resonance, in seeing a family get infected and rot in real time—the grandmother, who can remember WWII, laments that she’d never known a racist before now (!) and can’t understand this is happening to her own kin. In a ghastly climax, hundreds of stereo-/proto-typically ruddy Germans congregate in a beer hall to hear from a speaker about how everyone knows that Germany’s great and mighty strength comes from its Bavarian people—the type of rally we’re looking at, and the values expressed there, doesn’t need to be explicitly articulated. The gorgeousness of the film’s super-formal opening shots, with heavily color-corrected views of rotting fruit outside and dazzling shots of the nearby freeway at night, are at odds with the functional verite footage that follows, an incongruity that seems mostly a matter of expeditiousness rather than a conceptually purposeful disjuncture of modes.

The best premiere I saw, Daniel Hymanson’s So Late So Soon, portrays a couple of many decades increasingly self-isolated not because of the outside world but by their aging bodies—though, admittedly, Jackie and Don Seiden do love hunkering in their big Chicago house. Shot over five years, a duration not overtly signaled by Jackie’s former student Hymanson, So Late‘s opening stretch seems to avoid following a conventional documentary story arc, even as it’s stealthily planting the seeds of an increasingly urgent climax. A series of carefully shot, not-quite-tableaus capture the Seidens’ daily routines: quarrels which range from affectionate kvetching to the more lacerating baring of decades-old grudges, their mutual artistic practices (she’s more on the installation side, once he focused on mixed-media sculpture but now primarily draws; both taught), and companionship in mostly peaceable isolation.

There are disturbances from the outside world—we see Jackie trying to unplug street gutters during flooding—but the real enemy lurks within their bodies. Jackie visits a roller rink she used to be a regular at; now, she can watch but definitely not participate, because one fall would spell the end. “I’ve been an artist of disintegrating materials and here I am,” she observes. “I don’t think it’s that beautiful, my disintegrating.” But it’s Don who first gets so ill that he temporarily has to be moved out of the house into assisted care—the ticking time bomb of aging goes off, and whether or not he’ll ever make it back becomes a real concern, with an increasing intensity of fear that sneaks in not quite out of nowhere. Without sounding any obvious opening alarms, So Late So Soon modulates first slowly, then devastatingly quickly, into this darker territory. Lots of bad decisions are actively not made: there’s no slathering on music, the well-sculpted throughline never disintegrates into thuddingly obvious foreshadowing, chapter breaks are segmented by archival material (old TV profiles of both artists et al.) allowed to play out at length and provide their own textural pleasures rather than being chopped down to key lines. It’s a tough-minded crowdpleaser that rarely errs on the side of understatement, bookended (almost, not quite literally) by external shots of the Seidens’ house—by film’s end, this inconspicuous facade tersely glows with the life still surviving within.

Eloisa Soláas’s The Faculties abstractly poses some interesting questions, even if the experience of watching it is kind of a chore. Structurally, the premise sounds nearly identical to Claire Simon’s The Competition, which tracked students interviewing for a spot at France’s La Fémis film school. I’ve wondered what that movie plays like for people who don’t have a ton of context for e.g. why it’s funny when someone says, “Dreyer probably wasn’t a barrel of laughs on set” For the cinephilically-uninitiated, isn’t that basically incomprehensible? Why would such hypothetical viewer watch this in the first place, and is that kind of baked-in exclusionary aspect a problem per se? How much cinema-about-cinema is too inside the house? The Faculties, set in the national universities of Argentina, takes the premise of topics that are difficult for non-specialists to follow much, much further. The exams, which comprise the bulk of the running time, are often deep in the weeds of the law, medicine, mathematics et al.—unless any of those are your field of study, you’re not going to be able to follow the extremely specialized vocabulary. When words just become sound, viewers are forced to watch in a different way, like Primer with the difficulty level ramped up in multiple directions. What is the charge of each scene and the tone of each interaction, and can it be perceived if no one’s raising their voice? Does cause (student failure to remember abstruse lexicons) receive proportionate effect (from variably testy interlocutors)? What is the value of all these exchanges if it doesn’t translate outside the classroom?

One scene’s import is unambiguously clear: an economist explaining to his class that Argentina’s recession in 2001 didn’t change anything about how economics have been taught in the country since the peak years of Milton Friedman, so it’s especially important that the students in this room graduate and get themselves into positions of power as soon as possible to change that sorry state of affairs. Still, it’s telling that the sequence in the movie that was most intuitively clear to me is an examination, occurring at the beginning and end of the film, about what Bazin meant by “realism.” In this film’s formulation by example, “realism” is constituted by images that are obviously composed but also purposefully drab, both in framing and color, and exchanges whose veracity is confirmed by the fact that their difficulty level has obviously not been diluted for the uninitiated. That’s certainly a conception of Screen Realism, albeit one most likely to be appreciated by festival audiences whose members have a disproportionately high chance of having spent some time on Bazin—an authority less recondite than others cited only because of the (probably correct) idea that this film is aimed at a very small group of people (at festivals which will no longer be happening for the foreseeable future).

For good, bad and all the territory in between, the most attention-getting screening of the weekend was Khalik Allah’s IWOW: I Walk on Water, his third feature at True/False. Even before IWOW started, its gauntlet-throwdown qualities were signaled its 200-minute running time, and the opening minutes present an appropriately vast, disorienting amount of disparately-captured footage: old VHS home movies, super-grained out digital B&W urban street nightscapes in slow-mo, Super 16 of wild grass growing (presumably) outside Allah’s Long Island-based studio. The audio track skips busily around as well, including phone calls to friends where scattered topics of conversation include Sun Ra and the lesser-loved 1954 epic The Egyptian. (If the latter seems random, it’s important to remember that Allah’s part of the Five Percent Nation, and it’s not surprising that members of that movement would have a soft spot for anything called The Egyptian. This is, in every possible way, a Five Percent-inflected movie.)

IWOW can’t extendedly sustain this level of dizzying heterogeneity and soon settles into a groove of extended unified sequences, albeit with plenty of room for off-task rambling—this pushes the capaciousness of what a video diary can include extremely far, loosely structured around two recurring threads. One is Allah’s friendship with frequent photo/film subject Frenchie, a bipolar schizophrenic with a K2 habit; the other obliquely chronicles the slow dissolution of his relationship with a fellow filmmaker, identified only by her first name as Camila. It’s worth noting that what I saw has already been recut, so I can only report on the experience I had watching a film that didn’t have its opening or closing titles done, and which Allah (at least at the time) said he was open to possibly cutting into two films (I have no idea how that would work). Frenchie is often difficult to understand, his speech slurred by years of narcotic self-abuse, and Allah is maybe open to subtitling him. The synthetic, potentially deadly “weed substitute” K2 is one of the great plagues of the last decade and Allah is its premiere chronicler. Segments of IWOW belong in the Bodega Representation Hall of Fame for how well they capture these ubiquitous NYC neighborhood anchors (which also sold a lot of the K2 that keeps going into circulation). Allah spends much of IWOW looking for Frenchie or talking with him in the car (a long stretch of audio is just their conversation on the drive back to Long Island). Sometimes he prompts Frenchie on specific topics (“Talk to me about God”), sometime he just lets him roll.

The longer Allah treats Frenchie as a pure-hearted oracle, the question of the director-subject relationship (one lubricated by small amount of cash picked up from the nearest ATM mid or at the end of every session) and power imbalances is inherently raised. Intent vs. outcome, and how objectionable or problematic both parts of the equation might be, also applies to the break-up strand, about which I don’t know quite what to say. There is, deep in the running time, an incredibly painful argument between the two, during which Allah is on mushrooms while rebutting every complaint Camila has, less than convincingly—relationship endgame as obdurate, willful denial of obvious underlying problems. Allah doesn’t come off well, and it’s to his credit that this extended video diary self-portrait allows plenty of space for others to call him out. A lower-key example: When Allah asks one guy to speak on the freaky coincidence that the Netherlands contain both Haarlem and Amsterdam, the gentleman correctly points out that the Dutch colonized New York so it’s hardly worth commenting on. Equally hilarious, and more unnerving, is Allah telling his mom that he regularly takes shrooms before starting to recite the number associated with each letter, then explaining that he might actually be Christ—she’s freaked out, because Five Percent thoughts filtered through hallucinogens are not necessarily intuitive for the unfamiliar, and it’s hard to blame her.

Because much of the audio consists of long stretches of real-time conversation, and because the sources of imagery all become very familiar, the visceral experience of IWOW hits a lot of tedious patches. Some segments are stronger than others, like that breakup sequence or one that might be called “On Gentrification,” with Allah and a friend driving around observing that they’ve hit white-person territory when they spot a Whole Foods—a Raymour & Flanigan, Allah notes, must be somewhere right nearby. Sometimes there are long, literally rambling stretches that stretch time out in ways that seem less durationally purposeful than sloppily lysergic, but every 15 minutes or so something memorable happens—something funny, whether on purpose or not, or more along the lines of “you said what out loud for the record?,” or genuinely hurtful or surprising. And if the imagery settles into certain repetitive grooves, the decision of what to focus on on the audio side never does: with some 15 minutes left to wrap it up, Allah and two passengers in his car are animatedly discussing the pros and cons of beets, whether they’re nasty if badly cooked or just in general, the health value of their juice etc. Objectionable tendencies are manifested throughout: there is an amount of normative misogyny baked in that, depending on your perspective, is either refreshingly honest about where it’s coming from or just especially unpleasant. The film is (in Allah’s own words) “motherfucking long,” much more so than either necessary or pleasurable, but it got under my skin: there’s enough weird truth, ill-advised self-disclosure and the unexpected in there to make this some kind of future cult classic for directors who love to see other directors doing what they like, at whatever length they desire, regardless of whether or not it fires.

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